These are transformative times for employees and organizations everywhere. The world is gripped by a pandemic that is fundamentally changing how we interact on a daily basis – at work and on the home front, reshaping the economic and social landscape. Organizations and individuals are also striving to make gains on diversity and inclusion to improve culture and create equitable workplaces. Furthermore, there is unrelenting pressure to adapt and innovate – in response to competition, constraints and opportunities – in order to survive and thrive in this new reality.
As the world leans into this period of rapid and sustained change, it’s abundantly clear that there is a need for tools to help us cope, to provide support as we reinvent ourselves and to help us find traction for forward motion.
The good news is that there is one simple strategy – mentoring – that helps individuals and organizations address such complex, multi-faceted problems.
The many interconnected benefits of mentorship
While we typically – and correctly – think of mentorship as a way to increase career preparation and advancement, its many benefits go far beyond.
Again and again, over 12 years of designing and delivering mentorship programs, I’ve seen mentoring be the guardrail that keeps people in the game or playing a better game. Mentors are often the wind beneath someone’s wings when they are worried about crashing to earth. Mentors are the much-needed light that helps mentees keep or regain perspective and focus productively on the next steps along their pathway.
Mentorship is also among the most powerful ways to build effective, innovative, competitive organizations by bringing the right people together for the right conversations that can change everything. Mentors are the critical linchpins in cross-pollinating knowledge, ideas, culture and new best practices across an organization. Mentorship builds both general and specialist knowledge. It hones leadership, decision-making and critical thinking skills.
Other benefits of one-to-one and cohort-based mentoring include:
- creating more ways for mentees to get exposure to opportunities aligned with their interests and capabilities
- providing a way for people to connect with others they may not have access to otherwise
- inspiring action toward purpose and goals
- creating opportunities for people to build partnerships
- increasing team engagement
- attracting and retain younger workers, many of whom appreciate individualized experiences
Key elements for mentorship program success
However, for a mentorship program to succeed as a strategy, it must involve more than casual coffee dates. Successful mentoring programs are strategic and structured: they create the right conversations between the right people at the right time.
Well-run mentorship programs blend an organizational and an individualized approach to building the ladders and scaffolding that people need to succeed during times of change, challenge and adaptation.
The most effective mentorship programs include the following elements:
- A clear purpose – the mentoring program is created to accomplish specific goals, such as to advance groups that are underrepresented, to prepare people for leadership positions or to circulate key knowledge around the best or new ways of doing things.
- Strategic, thoughtful matching of mentors and mentees – optimal matching ensures rapid traction and meaningful learning that changes what people are able to do.
- Mentee preparation – mentees succeed most when they receive guidance and best practices to ensure they are able to make the best use of their mentor’s time.
- Mentor cultivation and support – mentors value the opportunity to build their mentoring skill set, including how to manage boundaries and expectations, and how to address unconscious bias.
- Light enablement – ideally, the cadence of communication from the program team to the mentorship pairs is designed to keep everyone on track while avoiding being administratively onerous.
- Tracking and measurement – finally, it’s important to gauge progress against key performance indicators, and to determine if mentoring pairs and groups received value from the relationship and are happy with the outcomes.
Mentorship to cross-pollinate diversity, equity and inclusion
Successful diversity and inclusion strategies start at the top, with the executive leadership, and involve the entire company. Real change demands the ongoing cross-pollination of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives across the organization. That’s why thoughtful, structured mentorship programs work so well: Mentoring (in pairs or groups) provides a unique opportunity to support underrepresented team members, and is an engaging and effective way for people to increase their diversity knowledge, cross-cultural understanding and participation rates.
An often-cited study backs this observation, concluding that mentoring worked better than diversity training and networking in increasing the number of women and minority leaders in management.
Other key takeaways about mentorship programs for diversity and inclusion
- Mentoring creates stronger ties between people and can break down barriers of gender, culture, ethnicity and age.
- Mentoring creates more opportunities for “sponsorship,” the ability for leaders to know, assess and recommend people they might not have otherwise encountered, and the ability for mentees to get exposure to opportunities aligned with their interests and capabilities otherwise unavailable to them. While not every mentoring relationship results in sponsorship, research indicates that people who are mentored are more promotable, more engaged and more productive.
- Mentorship program success begins with recruitment and matching processes: When recruiting mentors and mentees, always identify considerations for diverse or special populations. How will your program ensure equity and a positive experience for all participants? Define a matching process that takes into consideration diversity, participant goals and mentor-mentee collaboration style.
- Foundational education about how to approach diversity in mentoring partnerships contributes to the success of the pairs or groups, including how to reduce unconscious bias and other potential risks of cross-cultural mentoring.
Finally, mentoring is rewarding for mentors as well as mentees. A powerful part of the mentoring process is learning with – and from – someone with a different life story than yours. The benefits for mentors include the value of making one’s own tacit knowledge explicit and learning from mentees’ knowledge and experiences.
Mentoring is more important than ever in today’s coronavirus-induced working reality, as social distancing requirements keep us apart. Well-executed mentoring programs – including those that are 100% virtual – promote feelings of connectedness to an organization and to a field of expertise. Most critically, mentorship reduces barriers to team and career success by ensuring people have the inspiration, support, knowledge and know-how to meet their goals.